I hope you have all been doing well. That's the goal of this enterprise of life, after all, a world in which all of us are doing well. What more is there to achieve than this?
An attitude that many of us hold that never ceases to bother me is cynicism. There are a few ways to define this. Let me throw a few at you:
- An excessive distrust of the motivations of others
- An inclination to view people as moved by only self-interest
- A conviction in a pessimistic outlook on the future
What irritates me is that almost without fail people believe they are seeing reality as it is, as if it were self-evident that those content with the world were simply naive or foolish.
Another problem is that a cynical view is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe a difference cannot be made, you will not try to make one.
The Reality of Human Nature
"I'm neither a good cop nor bad cop, Jerome. Like yourself, I'm a complex amalgam of positive and negative personality traits that emerge or not, depending on circumstances."
This cartoon offers about the most grounded view of the human psyche I have encountered.
We have many impulses. Some of which promote our collective well-being and others that threaten it. All that we do is preceded by a complex web of causes and conditions, and this is a genuine basis for hope.
This means that with the right conditions we can happily live together in this world. It seems to me that one of these conditions is simply not believing it is impossible.
Can you deny that we as a species have made considerable progress throughout the course of history?
I have already written about this in a 2018 piece: How far we have come.
In the average food court we find a selection of cuisine broader than any king a few centuries ago could have ever known. All of the world's culture and knowledge can be accessed from a device most of us carry around in our pockets. Almost all of us would have recovered many times from diseases that were once considered fatal. Oh, and we have also realised the ancient dream of flying like a bird — and now take it for granted.
Like the Beatles have sung: It's getting better all the time
In the last two hundred years alone:
- Our lifespans have doubled (world average from 30 to 71)
- Extreme poverty has dwindled (From 90 per cent of us to less than 10)
- Violence has been radically reduced (once upon a time it was the default)
- There is far less discrimination based on gender, race and sexuality (this is not to say that it has disappeared entirely)
We humans have used our creativity and diligence to improve the world many times before and I suspect we will continue to do so time and again.
That progress is possible is an undeniable truth — and an argument against the fatalism many of us have fallen to.
Goodness beyond measure
When James Harrison turned 18 years of age, he went to donate blood. He then learned that he possessed a rare anti-body that could save babies suffering the rhesus disease. From then on he went almost every single week of his life to donate even more. He is now 78 years old, he has been at it for sixty years and saved over 2 million babies.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is arguably the greatest Tibetan Lama (teacher) of recent times. At age 16 he left the worldly life and under the tutelage of his guru went on a solitary meditation retreat with nothing but the birds and deer for company.
Throughout his entire life as a teacher, he only slept for four hours each night. He arose in the early hours of the morning for his meditation session before breakfast. Then, from morning until night he would do nothing but teach barely stopping for rest. This would go on for months and years and when he needed to recover, rather than go on a holiday as most would he would spend time in intensive retreat.
I have met students of his who grow teary-eyed at the mere mention of their kind teacher.
J K Rowling, the author of the famed Harry Potter series was the world's first woman billionaire. She has since lost her status as a billionaire after having given a substantial amount of her fortune to charity.
"You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently."
In 2011 she donated 16 per cent of her net worth, a total of $160 million across a spread of different charities she values.
In the 1950s and '60s Norman Borlaug helped instigate the Green Revolution. How many people we can feed is contingent on how much crop we can grow on a limited area of land.
Wheat, rice and corn invest a lot of energy into their woody inedible stalks — this is an incredible waste of land, water and fertiliser.
Borlaug spent years tediously crossing thousands of strains of wheat to create offspring with high yields, shorter stalks and resistance to external conditions.
He then repeated this process with rice and corn.
It is largely thanks to him that the world needs less than a third the amount of land to produce a given quantity of food.
I came across this example in Steven Pinker's 2018 book Enlightenment Now.
Toby Ord is a research fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. One day he realised that with proper budgeting, he could donate enough money to cure over eighty thousand people of blindness. So he did.
He is the founder of the organisation Giving What We Can where you can take a pledge to donate 10% of the money you earn throughout your lifetime.
Naturally, he goes above and beyond this, living off less than $30,000 (USD) a year and donating the rest.
I learned about the activities of Toby Ord from the wonderful Peter Singer's TED Talk.
A World of Love
When Daniel Dennett survived heart-failure, he laid in bed contemplating the amount of human goodness that had to exist to ensure his fortune. These contemplations formed the basis of this beautiful letter.
Here are my favourite excerpts:
Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.
To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and perfusionist who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, the physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for this invention of the CT scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.
The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousand of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.
If all of this isn't evidence for human goodness, I don't know what is.
The mailing list now has over eighty members. I'm amazed at the amount of growth it has experienced. Thank you very much — all of you.
If there is anyone you know that would enjoy or otherwise benefit from these letters please send them here.
This was a long letter, wasn't it? Thank you for making it to the end, my writing has meaning because of you.
I hope you have an excellent week,